On Tuesday, December 11, just before 8 PM, a lone attacker, Cherif Chekatt, armed with a handgun and a knife, killed five people and injured a dozen others who were visiting the famous Christmas market in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Chekatt was wounded in an exchange of fire with counterterrorism forces but initially escaped. Two days later, a patrol spotted him on a street close to where he grew up, a few miles away from the Cathedral, and shot him dead. The Islamic State (ISIS) quickly issued a press release praising Chekatt as a “soldier,” but what role, if any, ISIS had in the attack is uncertain.
Chekatt was a drug dealer and a petty criminal, and had been on France’s extremist watch list since 2008, when he had put up a poster of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his prison cell. French authorities will likely be criticized for having failed to prevent the attack. Yet the truth is that in 2018, such attacks have become relatively rare.
Europe is now at the end of a wave of jihadist violence that began on November 13, 2015, with a series of ISIS attacks in Paris. In 2015, 150 people were killed in jihadist terrorist attacks, followed by 135 in 2016 and 62 in 2017. Unless something unexpected happens in the next few weeks, however, 2018 will end with only around 20 fatalities from terrorist attacks in Europe—a major decline from the previous three years.
What explains this sudden downturn? The decline of ISIS has certainly helped. But mostly, the answer is that European authorities have stepped up their fight against terrorism, passing aggressive new laws and thwarting plots that a few years ago might have been carried through to completion. This is a welcome development. But the risk of terrorism remains high: groups such as al Qaeda are still active in Syria and elsewhere, and the population of potential jihadist recruits in Europe has greatly expanded in recent years. European governments should celebrate the recent decline in violence, but they
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